Welcome to Mindhive. On the fourth floor of a Britomart building is a hit squad of whizz kids who come together to solve business problems by pulling industrial R&D solutions out of thin engineering air.
Mindhive lives on the fourth level of a building in Auckland’s Britomart. The elevator is broken, so access to the office’s vast shiny polished floors is by the staircase. Huge speakers pump out music and the desks were constructed from pallets, which had to be lugged up the stairs. In the middle of the room sits a giant inflatable bubble, known as the ‘brain’, which has programmable cycling lights that illuminate it, functioning as an inflatable meeting room. Two armchairs, a coffee table and a heap of black bean bags sit inside, awaiting staffers and their brainstorming sessions.
Mindhive, in look, feel, interview and business model, is scattered – but focused. Essentially it’s a group of technical whizz kids, ‘polymaths’, who are contractors, inventors and consultants. They come together for projects and disband again when they’re not needed. It’s a sort of hit squad, but one that deals in anything from rubbish to horticulture to Prada handbags, aiming to give businesses a tech edge by pulling industrial R&D solutions out of thin engineering air.
Dion Bettjeman is a director of Mindhive and the brain behind the brain. Sometimes, for kicks, he programmes the brain’s lights to stay on just one colour, to see what happens.
“If you push the colour more towards blue, creativity goes through the roof,” Bettjeman says. “People get weird and start throwing stuff around. I don’t tell people I’m doing it but it’s quite fun. Probably illegal.”
Creativity and testing is at the centre of everything Mindhive does.
Alongside 28-year-old Bettjeman are Damon Maria and Nick Virtue, both 10 years his senior. Bettjeman owns 94 percent of Mindhive, while the Icehouse owns the remaining six percent.
Whirling around inside their own brains are ideas for things such as electronics to make kick-arse rubbish trucks, synthetic vision cameras to count crops, and deerskin scar detectors. And, of course, lots more secret stuff, but they can’t talk about that and we never had this conversation.
Maria and Virtue are seasoned developers. Each has bought into Mindhive via Bettjeman’s 94 percent, but are still entrenched with their other venture, Motorweb, where they made their money. Motorweb is a site that offers juicy car history details such as unpaid fees, wound odometers, and owner name or whether it’s stolen; details are uploaded by members of the public, vehicle traders, finance and insurance companies. Maria and Virtue split their time between the two companies, an arrangement that works well while Mindhive is still in transition from its current small standard industrial R&D projects to the target: six-to-eightmonth government-funded full research projects.
Ultimately, Mindhive is Bettjeman’s baby, the product of a career history that is as diverse as the company’s secret projects. Bettjeman did three first years of three different degrees in between traveling: science with chemistry, physics and maths, and then a philosophy major in psychology, followed by management and commerce.
Later, he gained even more enlightenment as a venue engineer for such London clubs as Fabric. Coming back to New Zealand he got a more sustainable and sensible job in corporate IT, creating systems for pharmacy and medicine, but a chance encounter with a friend changed everything. The friend needed help to design the computer control component of a small train for KiwiRail. Six weeks later they had it nailed – and had Bettjeman thinking very Mindhivish-thoughts, although he didn’t know it yet.
“I saw there was this opportunity to go out and do this off-the-wall stuff that wasn’t really mainstream. So I quit my job in IT, bailed out and went out in my own as a fully established company – contracting in tandem with somebody else – called CoLab.”
His introduction to the inventor’s world was through rubbish trucks, set in the heavy industry sector of South Auckland. It was a “grizzly” line of work designing their control systems.
He dealt with the beasts manufactured by engineering firm Manco Environmental, making them more competitive against the more established Ozzy truck manufacturers. He basically took the trucks from simple 70s-era wires and blinking lights into the electronic stage complete with with modern computers and the ability to collect mountains of data never ever picked up by the previous system.
“The upshot of [the contracts with Manco] was that I ended up seeing this whole industry where there was no-one really taking much interest in how they collect the rubbish, in terms of how they schedule the routes – they don’t know how much they pick up each day.”
Mindhive still wasn’t in existence proper yet though. Bettjeman approached the Icehouse for guidance around launching something totally different: developing the technology to weigh each bin so ratepayers could be charged only for the rubbish their households produced (at that time and still now, weighing rubbish can be done if the operator pauses while lifting the bin with the forks, using up precious time in an action that currently only takes around five seconds. If a way to weigh the bin while it’s moving could be devised, this could save money, encourage recycling, and let operators exactly how much rubbish they’re collecting.
Bettjeman reckoned he had the technical expertise but no idea how to get it off the ground. Incidentally, he’s soon to revive this project with Mindhive since pay-per-kilo waste is now on the city’s long term plan.
The Icehouse placed Bettjeman and his idea into the Hatchery Programme, under business coach Peter Wogan’s mentorship to strategise the idea.
Then things changed tack. Bettjeman must have waxed lyrical about his “pipedream” of a big space where people could get together and work on sporadic short-term projects as a group and the disband again, “kind of like a hackerspace but just a little bit more commercialised”.
Whoa, said Wogan, who pointed out there was actually a big market for that and suggested commercialising the idea. So when Bettjeman got to pitching an idea to the Icehouse heads, it wasn’t the idea of rubbish weight mechanisms, but that of outsourced R&D, with a core team of technical nerds running the show.
And they liked it. Maria and Virtue literally bought into the idea, investing the cash that got them rolling. Mindhive was born and it moved into the space that, with the help of their first resident DreamConfig, would form co-working space Movers & Shakers (see Idealog #45).
So how does Mindhive go about scoring business? Bettjeman says he just sits down with people and gets them talking about what they do.
“Within 10 to 15 minutes you’ve got someone telling you, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if …’. It’s that ‘Wouldn’t it be great’ sentence that I’m looking for. The moment you get that, your brain starts going, ‘Yeah, we could look at that, we could apply this technology to it’. Even if the first meeting is of little value, the first time you tackle it you’ve got something to go back with. It evolves pretty quickly from there.”
Then the trio suss out whether or not Mindhive has the capacity and capability to do the project, whether it’s been done before, and if it’s going to be of any economic value to the client. The team will also bring in consultants or peers in their business network who have specialist knowledge in those specific areas, and come up with a proof of concept that they’ll try out, which can be “as number eight wire and duct tape as we like”.
Transparency to the client is imperative, with the customers having as much interaction with Mindhive as they need during the development process – even if it slows it all down – and discussions about how IP will be managed takes place at the very beginning. (IP almost always goes the client – one of the criteria for government funding known as ‘knowledge transfer’. You must demonstrate that anything you’ve developed – anything you’ve had funding for – is going to the customer in its entirety, IP and all. The idea is to encourage businesses to carry out their ideas and hopefully eventually benefit the economy).
In the scenario where someone has a worthwhile idea for a project they want to work on, but lack funding, government or otherwise, Mindhive will consider paying for it, taking all the IP and licensing the technology out to the client afterwards.
“It can be good or bad,” Bettjeman admits. “We don’t get cash for it up front, but we can reuse that technology down the track in part for other projects, which is working really well for us at the moment.”
Mindhive procures funding using venture capital management company Sparkbox. Sparkbox has an investment arm and an advisory arm, and via the latter, they can assist companies to get government grants. The two companies have an arrangement that’s worked better than both parties anticipated – aside from fundraising, Bettjeman says there is also currently an informal external consultant role happening, where Sparkbox uses Mindhive’s expertise to gauge whether the ideas of companies enquiring about funding actually are technically viable or not. Sparkbox venture capitalist Edwin Darlow says they’re both exploring more ways to work together to find a synergy and turn Mindhive’s ideas into a commercial reality.
“They’ve got a lot of very interesting ideas and engineering-type technology, they’ve been doing a good job of what they’ve got but it’s not their core interest and skill-set – that’s obviously where the potential synergy is. We’re looking for the ideal project where we can really make that happen.”
Much of the funding is used to buy time with the big brains at Callaghan Innovation (formerly Industrial Research Limited), which Bettjeman finds is now a lot more approachable to industry.
“As a contractor or institution we can buy research time from them, in small batches, say two days, so that gives us the opportunity to go test an idea, do some field trials and come back and go, ‘This is what we learnt, what do you think’, and this is an opportunity to buy time with really highly qualified scientists, who get results quickly and who are really neat to deal with, too.”
In doing so they can accredit scientists at the institute as their external source of technical expertise, which helps their case for government funding – external resources who have better knowledge than they do to get whatever they’re doing done faster, and for less, is a great case.
“I think we’re moving away from traditional scientific development, which is labcoats and clipboards, and back into slightly more agile development,” says Bettjeman.
Honey in the hive
So what is Mindhive busy at work on right now?
First of all, it’s heading back to Bettjeman’s career roots by aiming to improve overall efficiency of commercial rubbish collection, making a new generation of rubbish and recycling trucks that can gather data and report like nothing these streets have seen before.
They’ll even save the operators on their road user charges with a clever twist on constantly balancing out the loads of vehicles (they’ll position the packer blade at different positions relative to the rubbish, using computer components) so the operators don’t ever breach the maximum axle load limits and cause damage to the road. Efficiency of rubbish collection is important here because the waste collection service is tendered to private operators, rather than handled municipally. As a rubbish collector you want to make sure your vehicle can collect as much rubbish as it can in one go without suffering the fine.
Manco Enviromental has been the willing guinea pig throughout the rubbish projects, and Bettjeman’s lifeblood, bootstrapping Mindhive through most of this process, with a constant stream of jobs where they want to reinvent something and they need a tech take on it.
“Dion loves to have a challenge or a problem chucked his way,” says chief engineer Ross Williams. “That’s almost his daily appetite – the more problematic, the more he seems to thrive on it.”
Mindhive is also pretty enthusiastic about synthetic vision, or teaching computers to see. They use cameras, with different frequencies and spectrums, to isolate objects (mostly horticultural, such as fruits and vegetables). This has applications in, for example, the potentially tedious task of in-the-field crop counting – the data could show the farmer or orchard manager how many units of a fruit or vegetable is growing on the ground or in the canopy. It could then show which areas of the fields are growing faster, so that fertiliser could be more selectively applied, or trees casting too much shade could be thinned – all automated observations.
Mindhive has an advantage in this area; Maria has no stereoscopic or 3D vision – a brain ability that is never developed if you don’t correct astigmatism before a certain age – so he has gone through life guessing the distance at which an object lies based on its size. Not great for Maria, but great for 2D camera simulation.
“We’ve been working on developing 2D synthetic vision technologies because they are cheaper and less processor intensive [than setting up expensive and complicated 3D rigs]. As such my limited human vision is kind of the ‘gold standard’ of what should be possible with our synthetic vision using a single camera. If I can detect something with my own eyes, then we hope to be able to reproduce that using our software.”
Bettjeman says it’s “an odd side effect of this weird condition”, but it works. Mindhive’s also working with Light Leathers, a deerskin tannery based in Timaru that has the vast majority market share of deerskin products. New Zealand deer make up a small percentage of the global deerskin trade but ours have the advantage of being bigger than those sourced from the US (a smaller whitetail breed), and the larger expanses of cured skin can be used for big items such as handbags. As a result, many of Prada’s luxury handbags and boots are from New Zealand deerskin.
2011 figures from DeerNZ put New Zealand deer at 1,100,000, and deerskin makes for a very soft leather – much thinner and more supple than cattleskin or sheepskin. However, since deer are by nature skittish and feisty, springing into fences with fright or viciously impaling one another with antlers and sharp hooves, their hide is prone to scarring. The skins are graded; A would be absolutely perfect, ready to be transformed into a handbag, whereas B might have a scar or two and carries less of a price tag. Currently, grading the hides takes many tedious hours to complete, but using a synthetic vision model, Mindhive intends to enable speedy scanning, which will hopefully bring increased output at the factory.